As published in the July – August 2023 edition of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution National Defender.
A recent military magazine article on WWII journalists neglected to mention any women correspondents aside from Martha Gellhorn, and gave her a mere nod in passing. Yet she is considered one of the great war correspondents of the 20th Century, having covered nearly every major conflict in the world during her 60-year career.
By 1945, there were 250 women accredited to the allied forces as reporters and photographers. These included the likes of Virginia Cowles, Clare Hollings- worth, Sigrid Schultz, Helen Kirkpatrick, and Lee Miller. Trailblazers all.
But much as they had to fight to be able to do their jobs then, they now have to fight to not be forgotten.
Ruth Gruber, from a small Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, was only 20 years old in 1931 when she made headlines for earning a doctorate in German literature at the University of Cologne, Germany. She was a phenomenal writer, an icon of American journalism in the 20th century. Her reporting started with a visit to the Russian Gulag, a book about life in the Alaskan wilderness followed, and later she became involved with coverage of the war in Europe and its aftermath. Ruth wasn’t exactly a combat correspondent, but by 1940 she was already an experienced newspaper reporter, starting first with the New York Herald Tribune. The next year she was a government employee, working for Secretary Harold Ickes at the Department of the Interior. There she continued to explore and to write. Her personal brand of journalism is what has often been called “the first rough draft of history.”
Ruth didn’t just passively observe history unfolding. She was more than a reporter. She said, “I had to live the story to write it, and not only live it – if it was a story of injustice, I had to fight it.” It was her destiny – bound up with stories of rescue and survival. She was the witness. And the advocate.
Ruth Gruber, center, with Jewish refugees from Europe, in New York City port, on 3 August 1944
Photo: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum courtesy of Michel Oliver.
Ruth lived the story of the only group of nearly 1,000 Jewish immigrants she guided from the Western Mediterranean through the dangerous waters of the Atlantic to the U.S. in 1944 as personal guests of President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1947 she covered the story of the refugee ship Exodus, bearing witness to Holocaust survivors battling the British in attempts to create a Jewish state. She also wrote 13 books on the amazing events she not only witnessed, but lived.
Margaret Bourke White was the first woman war correspondent in World War II. A documentary photographer, she was the only correspondent in Moscow when the Germans invaded. She captured the firestorm that ensued. Later she reported from North Africa, with U.S. infantry units in Italy, and was the first American woman to fly a combat mission, in a bombing run. The staff at Life magazine called her “Maggie the Indestructible.” She traveled through Germany with Gen. George S. Patton in the spring of 1945 and witnessed the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
Margaret Bourke White (left), at Buchenwald
Photo credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives #60632, April 1945 by Lt. Colonel Parke O. Yingst, courtesy of Patricia A. Yingst
Martha Gellhorn was another highly respected correspondent who covered events in Europe from the mid-1930s through her trip through Dachau at the end of the war. In June 1944 she stowed away on a hospital ship to gain access to the D-Day invasion and was the only correspondent and the only woman on the beaches that day, helping evacuate the wounded. Her husband, Ernest Hemingway didn’t make it to the beaches. She noted how difficult it was for women reporters to gain access, saying, “If they don’t want to accredit you, you just do it. Any little lie will do.”
The Wall Street Journal called her “One of the most fearless, determined and talented journalists ever to have covered wars.” She too wrote a number of books, detailing her wartime coverage, and she also wrote about travel and fiction.
Martha Gellhorn (center) with the 5th U.S. Army, February 1944, Cassino, Italy
Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, Great Britain.
By 1945 there were 250 female journalists accredited to the allied forces as reporters and photographers. They represented nearly every major newspaper in the U.S., plus dozens of magazines, wire services, and radio stations. These included the likes of:
Several female war correspondents who covered the U.S. Army in the European Theater during World War II; from left to right: Mary Welsh, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller, and Tania Long
U.S. Army Photo
These are but a few of those incredible women who fought to serve, to use their skills to find information and stories, sometimes terrible, sometimes over- whelming and heartbreaking, but always important, and indeed necessary. They had to fight for the right to serve, facing entrenched misogyny, sexism, racism, and often just downright stupidity. They had to prove they could dig a latrine, ride in a combat aircraft, face death and the evidence of its aftermath. They performed.
True, many were later haunted by some of the horrific scenes they had witnessed, as were thousands of men. But these women were determined to pursue the truth and tell it – loudly and often. These intrepid correspondents made a difference in their pursuit of the story, every one of them.
Many of these correspondents later wrote books about their experiences, published compilations of their stories, or were the subjects of biographies themselves. There are several new books on women correspondents published in the past several years that are more than worth reading, including:
John Anderson, “Recounting the Past of a Witness to History,[Ruth Gruber]” New York Times online edition, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/movies/05gruber.html, 2 September 2010, accessed 9 April 2023.